Here’s a bit of modern received wisdom: in a loud world with all kinds of competing, shouting voices you need to be bold and polarised to get any attention. Lots of people say this as if it’s a fact. But is it correct and based on anything, or is it just rubbish? We couldn’t find any actual evidence either way so we decided to test the proclamation ourselves on that most polarising of public forums, Twitter.
We set up 3 accounts on Twitter, all of which engaged on the subject of energy and environment. One account was strongly pro-green and renewables, one strongly anti-renewables and strongly pro nuclear, the third nuanced and looking to highlight the merits and drawbacks of different stances. All had similarly mundane profiles with no links. All followed the same 8 people initially. And all followed the same rules: tweet every morning, midday and afternoon of every weekday in October 2019; participate in existing conversations, do not initiate; follow everyone who follows you; carry on conversations as far as counterparts stay engaged; do not block or mute; and stay in character even if it hurts.
To make analysis fair, we compared all the engagement metrics on a per impression basis, i.e., we divided engagement metrics by the number of times our characters’ tweets appeared in other people’s timelines (likes per impression, replies per impression, etc.).
We put the experiment details at the back of this article but we haven’t revealed the accounts in case we want to do a follow up.
Do Polarised Views Get More Attention?
The weakest measure of interest about someone in Twitter is when someone clicks on their profile. On this measure, our polarised anti green character gets the most interest, but the nuanced guy gets more than the other polarised character, so the jury’s out on the theory so far. Nothing much to see here.
But profile clicks are easy and might just be logging how intriguing this character is. A stronger engagement is when someone takes time and interest to reply:
Nuanced guy comes out top, by a long way: a nuanced position got much more engagement than either polarised position. If we were to show number of exchanges per conversation, you would see that much of this is because he gets more replies to tweets and he gets more multiple exchanges per reply.
So, counter to the received wisdom, nuance gets more engagement. But engagement doesn’t equal approval, and as the saying goes, if you stand in the middle of the road you get hit by traffic from both directions.
Do Polarised Views Get More Approval?
The easiest way on Twitter to show approval is to hit the Like button. Here’s what happened:
Mr Nuance wins again. This is a one-sided measure because Twitter doesn’t have a dislike button, but our hypothesis coming into this was that polarised views would get both more approval and disapproval from the different sides, and that nuance would just generate a bunch of meh. This data says the opposite and nuance gets more gross approval.
Likes are easy though. A more committed way to show approval on Twitter is to retweet to your own followers. Guess what happened here?
In fact the only measure where Mr Nuance didn’t get the best approval rating was in followers per impression. He actually did get the most total followers but also had the most impressions and so lost out to Mr Polarised Anti Green on followers per impression.
Nuanced = Engagement But ≠ Easy
Nuance seems to get more engagement and more gross approval but that’s far from the whole story. Looking deeper into the replies to tweets, most are to challenge or disagree. So the greater interest Mr Nuance got was mainly people bothering to disagree with his pontifications. All of our characters got some form of abuse, but Mr Nuance was the only one to be blocked and the only one accused of being a fake trolling account, despite being the one seeking to be balanced. People.
Nuance was also harder work. With no dogma to fall back on, being nuanced meant thinking about each subject on its own merits and looking for multiple angles and insights. His tweets were typically longer, commonly needing editing and word shortening to stay inside the 280 character limit.
Which of Polarised and Nuanced is More Rewarding?
It depends what you’re after: if you only care about engagement then go for nuance, if you care about your sanity then don’t do either all the time. Within a week of our one month experiment we disliked all of our characters, whether nuanced or polarised, and were mighty relieved when the experiment was done. In a way this illustrated how “taking a nuanced position” vs “taking a polarised position” is a flawed generalisation. Staying nuanced when the situation deserves a strong agreement or an up yours is painful and artificial, as is staying dogmatic when the other person makes a valid and reasonable counterpoint. Being all nuanced felt pompous and weak; all polarised felt stubborn and stupid. Both felt false and didn’t reflect the natural dance of assertion and acknowledgement from a grown up conversation.
Experiment Limitations When Your Sample is 3
Of course this experiment has its limitations. Though our characters tweeted a total of 680 times during the month, there were still only 3 of them, and the conversations they happened to find themselves in certainly added randomness. A decent sample would be 30 of each.
Nevertheless, when the received wisdom is that polarised positions are a prerequisite for engagement, the burden of proof is on those who spout that wisdom. Our small experiment challenges that, even if it doesn’t disprove it with 95% confidence; it even suggests that the opposite may be true.
A New Hypothesis – For Better Engagement, Be Nuanced
So our new hypothesis is that if you want attention, you’re better off being nuanced. And if nuance gets better engagement on Twitter, we’d hypothesise that it would get better engagement anywhere.
Appendix – Study Data
Nuanced: “Life is for living making the most of it. Enjoy reading history and cycling.”
Green: “Taking each day as it comes. I enjoy swimming and cooking.”
Anti Green: “Trying to live the good life. Happy go lucky. Enjoy a good book and long walks.”
|Followers (ex 2 starters)*||8||3||7|
* Characters followed each other at the start of the experiment and these were excluded from the follower count
My position on climate change is that we need to take action because, given uncertainty, the stakes are too high not to take action (photo of previous tweet attached). But I’m going to continue to challenge and I’m not going to take anyone’s side
Did you mean climate change? Do you mean that AGW is the dominant factor in change or just that it exists?
I think I’m hearing you accept that the burden of proof is on you as the positive claimant and that you need to show evidence to defend your claim(s) against skeptics.
Any scientist or statistician projecting forward by 80 years to the nearest half percent needs to reconsider their vocation.
You’re equivocating people who challenge a hypothesis about climate change with people who reject the historical mass murder of millions. You know that’s pretty bad don’t you?
That’s ridiculous and so pointless too. We have to act now to prevent every city choking us to death
I agree. Simply teaching children facts and science isn’t alarmist it’s the opposite. The fact we need their help isn’t a bad thing. Children are the future after all.
Well said. Lets get this planet back to being green like it should be with mass forestation
This is the new we want – the Green movement is now mainstream. Govnt will HAVE to listen now
Good work. The oil industry is determined it seems to destroy the planet for all of us,
Anti Renewables & Pro Nuclear
Talk about responding to alarmism. They’ll be left so far behind economically.
That’s exactly what the green movement is doing with its misanthropic views, which permeate the heart of environmentalism.
The Greens never get that facts right. Fact.
That’s ridiculous. What a waste of time and energy literally. I think we should invest more in nuclear energy to be honest.
What a load of tosh. Just simple regression analysis as usual.
Isn’t it fascinating that the Green Movements don’t have a clue about the science?
Until we instigate a proper nuclear energy programme, oil is all we got.
Most models are wrong and alarmist including those that predict energy.